PORT WASHINGTON — When Vern Arendt was serving in the United States Army during World War II, he almost didn’t make it home. He was serving in the infantry unit in the South Pacific, and during a battle in the Philippines in 1945, he was injured while fighting the Japanese.
“I was operating a flamethrower during the battle of Zigzag Pass,” the now 88-year-old member of St. Peter of Alcantara Parish, Port Washington, recalled. “I was hiding out in a cave but the flamethrower wouldn’t ignite.”
A Japanese soldier emerged from the cave and lobbed a grenade toward Arendt. Although he tried to avoid contact, Arendt was hit in the hip and buttocks with shrapnel.
Army medics kept him alive, a feat not easily done during such heavy fighting, and Arendt made it home after “three years, 29 days and five hours” of service to his country.
For his injury and service during the war, Arendt should have received a Purple Heart, Bronze Star Medal, World War II Victory Medal, three bronze service stars and a multitude of other honors, if not for an unfortunate incident that caused a 64-year delay.
A portion of his service records was purposely destroyed during that battle by commanding officers for security reasons, and in 1973 the remainder were accidentally lost in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center. As a result, all documentation was lost, and his medals weren’t awarded to him.
“Well, I didn’t know, but I had hoped they would get around to it,” he said about the Department of the Army, who repeatedly denied his appeals due to the lack of documentation. “I had given up on it.”
In 2008 – some six decades after his injury – Arendt was traveling with other area World War II veterans on the Milwaukee region’s first Stars and Stripes Honor Flight, a national program that began in 2004 to provide free passage to veterans to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Unbeknownst to him, this journey would finally help him attain what was rightfully his.
“I was at the airport and couldn’t get through the metal detector,” Arendt explained, because of the shrapnel inside him. The story of how Arendt was injured came out to fellow travelers, including Ozaukee Press editor Bill Schanen IV, who had known Arendt for years from when Arendt was a longtime photographer for the newspaper. The fact that he never received medals for an injury that continued to affect his way of life was also revealed.
“I knew Vern very well and I always admired Vern as a co-worker, but during the time that I knew him, he never once told me a war story,” Schanen explained. “I knew he was in the war, and we had done stories related to his and his family experiences in the war, but I never knew any stories about Vern.”
Throughout the day, Arendt told Schanen “crystal clear” stories from the war that he had never shared with him – from the chaplain in his unit who would say Mass on the battlefront while bullets flew to the Japanese soldier who threw the grenade that wounded him.
The fact that he had metal in his body but no medals to show for it was a concern for Schanen. Knowing that Arendt wouldn’t pursue the issue any longer, Schanen took up his appeals and together the staff of the Ozaukee Press contacted Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl in December 2008 on Arendt’s behalf.
Soon after, Sen. Kohl contacted the Department of the Army and urged them to correct Arendt’s records to reflect his service and injury. Months later, Arendt was notified that he was to receive his complete set of medals, and on Sept. 11, 2009, Sen. Kohl presented Arendt with the medals for which he had been waiting more than 60 years.
“It was truly an honor to present Vern Arendt with his service medals, and it was a very happy occasion,” Sen. Kohl responded in an e-mail statement. “He is indeed an American hero. In a very real sense, he is emblematic of the Greatest Generation and all it did for our country.
“We are so pleased that the Army corrected Mr. Arendt’s military records so that he could finally receive the many honors he earned in battle,” he added.
After the war Arendt returned to Wisconsin, the state in which he grew up with his six siblings on his parent’s dairy farm in Belgium. On the farm he learned to appreciate not only the beauty of nature, but also his passion for capturing it on film. Regardless of the horrors he witnessed during the war, that passion remained a deep part of his life, and he decided to make it his career.
Taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, he enrolled in the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee to learn more about photography. He quickly became a top student, looking for different and unusual ways to take the best photos.
“(I’ve been) a photographer all my life,” he explained. “I looked at National Geographic and thought how those pictures can be better. I looked for something (the magazine) didn’t see … that’s when I decided to become a photographer.”
In 1957, Arndt married his wife, Myra, and used his multi-talented hands to build their home, located in a heavily wooded area in Port Washington, in which they still reside. They have two children, Chris and Sam, who has followed in his father’s footsteps as a photographer. Like his father, he often photographs people and events for your Catholic Herald in the northern part of the archdiocese.
The best thing about being a photographer, according to Arendt, is “putting the pictures to the people. (To) let people know what’s happening, show people what’s happening. Pictures tell the story.”
Through both formal schooling and self-exploring, Arendt had an impressive career chronicling life from Grafton to Belgium, as well as the Cedar Grove and Random Lake areas. He worked at the Ozaukee Press as chief photographer for more than 50 years, and did freelance work for your Catholic Herald.
In addition to his World War II medals, he also became the only weekly newspaper photographer to ever win the Robert H. Dumke Award in 1992, the highest award of the Wisconsin News Photographers Association. That same association decided to later retire the weekly newspaper award because Arendt kept winning it, year after year.